Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Reproducing for the child's sake?

Suppose that you are hooked up to a button which, if pressed, will induce in you a desire for a flash of green light followed by a flash of green light. Plausibly, if you will have a desire for something neutral or good, that gives me a reason to fulfill that desire. Assume that you consent to my pressing the button as well as to my not pressing it, but you have no desire either way. I now press the button, on the grounds that:

  1. you will have a desire to see a green flash, and by pressing the button I will have fulfilled that desire of yours.
But this is fallacious practical arguing. Granted, given that I will press the button, you will have a desire for a green flash, and so I have reason to press the button to give you that green flash. But whether I am to press the button is precisely what the practical question is about. And if I don't press the button, there will be no desire. I cannot use a desire of yours that is conditional on my decision to provide myself with a reason to press the button. That would be like lifting myself by my bootstraps.

Another case. Normally, if I know that I will make you a promise, that gives me a reason to do something that makes me able to fulfill of that promise. Suppose now that I am deliberating whether to promise you to draw a pig. Standing by is Jim, who I know will hand me a piece of paper and a pink crayon if and only if he hears me promise to you that I will draw a pig. So I promise you to draw a pig on the grounds that:

  1. I will shortly be subject to a promise to draw a pig, and by making the promise I make myself able to fulfill the promise, as Jim will supply me with the wherewithal.
But that is just plain silly. Given a decision to promise to draw a pig, it makes perfect sense for me to attempt to get the wherewithal. But whether to promise to draw a pig or not is precisely what is at issue. It would be rationally circular to reason from the promise in deciding to make the promise.

Now a third case. A couple has a child on the basis of the thought that if someone exists or will exist, then one has reason to provide them with a good, and

  1. The child will exist, and by procreating we will be providing the child with various goods, including especially life.
But it seems that this reasoning is as practically fallacious as (1) and (2). Of course, given that the child will exist, the provision of life to the child is a good thing. But whether the child is to exist is precisely what is at issue in the deliberation.

If this is right, then one cannot procreate for the child's sake.

One may be able to procreate in order that the world contain the good of the child's life, but that is an impartial good, not a good to the child. (And there are some Kantian worries about this—it seems to make of the child a means.)


SMatthewStolte said...

I find it fairly intuitive that one cannot procreate for the child’s sake. But consider this. Suppose that I am in a loving relationship with another person (male or female, but I”ll use the pronoun ‘her’), and that other person wants to create occasions for me to do loving things for her. Therefore, she allows herself to form a desire for something that I uniquely can fulfill. This might be for my sake, but (I am not sure) it might also be for our sake—that is, the sake for the loving relationship. This sort of thing seems to happen often, and it seems often to be a healthy thing to do.

There most important difference between this example and the green flash of light example is that the purpose of causing the desire to be formed isn’t simply so that I can her desire, but rather so that I can fulfill her desire as an expression of love.

If that were part of the consideration in the green flash of light example, then it might make sense for the person hooked up to the button to consent to having the button pressed or not, but still not to be indifferent about the matter, since an expression of love is generally a good thing.

The green flash of light example cannot be easily modified to account for expressions of love, because pressing a button just seems a little too mechanical.

But maybe procreation can be understood in this way.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Agreed. But in the love case, one's action of creating the desire still isn't justified by the expectation of the desire. The *desire* in this case is a means to an end, the end being one expression of love. In the analogous case, the child becomes a means to one's expression of love. That's a means to something very high, but still a means.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Let me put it to y'all this way:

Ain't we glad our parents chose to procreate? Just think, if they didn't procreate, we wouldn't be having this conversation. :-)

gmac said...

Dr. Pruss, I have a difficult question for you related to your work on sex ethics. (difficult from my perspective, that is, lol).

Thank you for your book One Body btw. Gotta be one of my fav. books of all time!

I'm interested in dating this girl that I met. She's divorced though. I'd like to date her but, as a Christian, how could I date someone without a view to marriage and how could I marry someone who has been divorced which, from your perspective, would be in a situation in which she is still in a valid marital bond given that the guy she married is a believer?

So, she married him and he seemed to be truly born again: evincing the life of the Spirit. He then got into a terrible car accident and after this his personality totally changed: he became abusive to her, alcoholic and was guilty of habitually cheating on her with other women. Moreover since then he still evinces all of these same negative characteristics.

She believes that God has since released her from the bond of marriage with this man. What I'm wondering is this: do you believe, from what I've revealed of the situation, that, on your philosophy, she is released by God from the bond of marriage from him?

Thanks brother Pruss! :). If you take the time out of your schedule to answer this question I will truly be humbled. I very much respect your work! :)

gmac said...

sounds as if the guy had some sort of brain injury as a result of the car accident. That would have been the thing that caused and is causing his abnormal behavior.

Jakub Moravčík said...

To point 3 (and also Dagmara´s comment): that immediately reminded me of so-called antinatalist position, leading with David Benatar´s book Better never to have been: The harm of coming into existence.
I see antinatalism as globally very serious objection and I would like to read some dr. Pruss´s post on this topic. Procreating not for child´s own sake is from antinatalists point of view one of arguments for stopping procreating.

Jakub Moravčík said...

Addendum to previous comment - there is also christian antinatalism, which seems to me as even stronger objection ...

Alexander R Pruss said...

If theism is true, then existence is always on balance valuable. Otherwise, Augustine's version of the problem of evil cannot have an answer.

Jakub Moravčík said...

If theism is true, then existence is always on balance valuable.

One interesting reply to this is here

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


I have read your post. You are in a difficult place. You have my prayers. The first question what is the position of your particular denomination (I don't know if you are Catholic or Protestant) in cases like these? This is where I would sit down with a priest or pastor and talk it out. Above all I would pray and wait for God to provide an answer. Remember God whispers his answers. May the peace of Christ be with you.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

I'll address the antinatalist position. I really wonder about these guys. What do they think for themselves? That is do they think it is a good thing for them to exist? If they feel that coming into the world and existing is such a bad thing, then why are they not in such a rush to remove themselves from existence? That is antinatalism for you, but not for me. Sometimes when I look at the stuff that they write, I wonder about their level of mental health sometimes.

Lets take this antinatalism out to its ultimate conclusion - all living things suffer to one extent or another. If they didn't exist, then they wouldn't suffer, so it is best for all living things not to come into existence. Therefore, we then have a world with no living things. That would be a totally dead world. Now what would be the point of that?

Jakub Moravčík said...


If they feel that coming into the world and existing is such a bad thing, then why are they not in such a rush to remove themselves from existence?

They offer different replies to this. Most common is that their removal from existence would cause suffering not only to themselves (through experiencing commiting suicide) but also to the ones who like/love them. And not to increase the suffering is most important for them. Other possible reply is that if they commited suicide, they would not be able to spread the message of antinatalism. I see both this replies as correct.

That would be a totally dead world. Now what would be the point of that?

Simple. There would be no suffering at all.

But after all, I see specific christian antinatalism arguments as more serious than the "secular ones". Also don´t forget that in the Bible there are passages that seem to be very antinatalist (also I know that it must be read in the context and that the overall message of Bible is not the antinatalist one). Still, there is one message of antinatalism that I think is very useful: it presses us to deeply examine WHY we really want to have children, why we should(n´t) and why we would like the living world to continue. Kantian worry dr. Pruss mentioned in point three is important here ant antinatalists themselves would absolutely emphasize it.

Alexander R Pruss said...


In my brief comment, I was addressing the Christian anti-natalist. The linked-to response rejects theism.

Alexander R Pruss said...


This is tough. Catholics have trained experts to help figure out whether there is a real marriage or not (annulment tribunal judges). I think I may suggest somewhere in the book that Protestants would do well to have such a structure in place, too. I assume you and she are Protestant from your wording. If she's Catholic, she should speak to her pastor and then have the tribunal figure it out.

The basic principle is that once a consummated Christian marriage exists, it exists until the death of one of the parties. So the question whether she is married to the abusive guy depends on what happened when they were getting married, not on what happened later. Were they really intending to commit to marital love and fidelity, while having a basic understanding of what this means?

From the brief thumbnail sketch of the story, it sounds like she MAY have been really married to him, and then a head injury resulted in an unfortunate shift in behavior. IF she really was married to him, then she has promised fidelity to him for life, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health. (Even if she didn't use those words, presumably she meant something along those lines.) It sounds like this is precisely a case of "in sickness". He is sick, due to the head injury.

If this is right--and that's a big IF since of course this is not something I can possibly diagnose at third or fourth hand (I am not even trained to do it at first hand!)--then she owes him the fidelity one owes to a sick spouse. That doesn't mean she should live with him or have any contact with him. It sounds (again, same disclaimer as above) like there is little she can do for him, and to provide him with an opportunity to abuse her would be neither charitable to herself nor to him.

So if there really is a marriage there, perhaps the thing she should do is live apart from him, have a legal separation agreement and maybe even a civil divorce for her protection, but remain faithful to him and continue to pray for him, while uniting her sufferings to the crucified Christ who united himself with people like her by himself foregoing the blessings of marriage. She should search for deep non-romantic friendships (more prudent if with women).

And if that's right, then you shouldn't date her. :-( And if you're attracted to her, a non-romantic friendship is liable to lead to misunderstandings.

On the other hand, it could be the case that they never were married. Maybe she didn't really mean to be married to him until death doth part. Maybe he didn't really intended fidelity and was mentally crossing his fingers. Maybe he was already mentally ill in a way that made it impossible for him to enter into such a seriously binding commitment. Like I said, I have no way of telling.

Dagmara's advice to speak to a pastor is a good one in principle, but unfortunately, at least within Protestant Christianity, it's too easy to get whatever answer one wants just by choosing which pastor to go to.

Alexander R Pruss said...

OK, so how about the Principle of Double Effect as an answer to the antinatalists?

It's permissible to do an intrinsically good action that one foresees has bad consequences when the bad consequences are not a means to the good ones and are not disproportionate.

So, let's say that a fertile married couple as capable of raising healthy children as any couple is considers whether to make love. Marital union is intrinsically good. It is foreseen to have some bad consequences: a certain probability of conception of a child who will suffer. But these bad consequences are not intended by them as a means or as an end. They aren't trying to cause suffering.

Marital union is also foreseen to have some good consequences: the existence of a new human life, the probability of contributions to the human community, they probability of joys experienced by that new human, etc.

So now, in applying Double Effect, we need to ask: Are the bad consequences disproportionate given the goods at stake? If the only goods at stake were the good of marital union, it might be that the sufferings of the child would be disproportionate. But that is not the good at stake. There are all the other goods. And now it seems that the bad consequences are not disproportionate.

So all the conditions for Double Effect seem met.

gmac said...

Thank you, that was good advice Dr. Pruss :). From reading your book One Body, I was thinking that you'd prob. come to that conclusion ;). I know that I didn't give much info. (well, I gave as much info as I received :S).

Yeah, you're right, it would be great if us Protestants had something like a Catholic marriage tribunal. We're definitely all over the map with answers to questions regarding marriage and intimacy!

Thanks for your insights! :)

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


You are right in that Protestants differ a lot in the areas of divorce and remarriage, and one can find a Protestant pastor who will agree with one. I was aware of that when I posted. This is what makes it so difficult. I am also reluctant to advise people to do something that may violate the doctrines of the church they attend. All said and done, Alex, I do agree with your overall assessment of this situation difficult as this is. Last night, I wanted to say something similar. However, I chose the words I did because of the sensitivity of the matter and not knowing anything of the parties involved.

gmac said...

Yes, thank you Dagmara :). Maybe I should sit down with a priest on this one ;)

Jakub Moravčík said...

Dr. Pruss:

At first, thanks for your replies.

The linked-to response rejects theism.

I didn´t noticed - where? You mean that it rejects theism because theism without God conceived as our benefactor through creating us cannot be called theism?

It is foreseen to have some bad consequences: a certain probability of conception of a child who will suffer. But these bad consequences are not intended by them as a means or as an end.

Now let´s change it in this way:

It is foreseen to have some bad consequences: a certain, really not small probability of conception of a child who will once be eternally damned. And although potential parents do not indend to procreate in order to increase the count of eternally damned souls, they know, that they inevitably run this risk and that they freely choose it.
Now, if we agree on that it is better not to exist than to be eternally damned, then there is a question: is such a risk morally permissible?

Marital union is also foreseen to have some good consequences: the existence of a new human life,

Is world with N+1 people really better than the world with N people? I am really not sure, although I think that many philosophers would say yes ...

the probability of contributions to the human community

Again - the Kantian problem. The child created as a means to contribute to human community ...

they probability of joys experienced by that new human

Yes, with this I can agree without objections

lynch-patrick said...

"Is world with N+1 people really better than the world with N people?"

I think the better formulation is, "could the world with N+1 people really be better.." - and I think the answer to this in principle is yes, given that any combination of material is inferior in perfection to any which obtains personhood. I would say that all matter anywhere is valuable insofar as we have the ability to reorganize it into a new person.